I enjoyed a victory in my work this week. I received a message from one of my former students, one of several who at one time had questioned what I had been teaching and how I had been teaching it. After recently having the opportunity to put some of my lessons to good use, she was writing to let me know that she now recognizes the value of what I had been offering in class.
As successes go, this one might be considered modest at best. I had not saved a life or revolutionized an industry or cleared a huge profit. But it was huge to me. I had risked my credibility, my new position, and even my students’ academic success on the efficacy of the new class I had created, and receiving a positive report from a student who had been a strong critic was tremendous validation of my work. Besides, I like this student; I was happy to hear that something she had taken from our class had helped her in another context.
Even as I was enjoying this success, I was recognizing how different it seemed from past successes. Despite my sinuous career path, I have had triumphs in other realms. As an associate practicing law in large law firms, I had made successful arguments on behalf of both paying and pro bono clients, arguments that had saved one company a couple million dollars, had kept a tenant from being evicted, and had helped a mother retain custody of her child. As a career counselor, I had congratulated advisees who, after working with me, had landed promising jobs and internships. All of these past successes had been gratifying conclusions to sustained efforts – almost like little gold stars letting me know that a particular task was complete and that I could relax.
This time was different. The message from my student was indescribably rewarding, to be sure – a result which I think quite justifiably gave me deep satisfaction. But this result did not feel so much to me like a happy ending. Happy, yes, but more of a beginning than an ending. The class I taught has been over for several weeks, but receiving this confirmation of its value to my students immediately gave me the sense that I had created a firm foundation upon which to build future efforts – refinements and additions to the existing syllabus, perhaps even new classes altogether. The reward I felt was not just a sense of past accomplishment, but an excitement about what this indicated I could accomplish in the future. Perhaps this is the kind of career success I have been seeking all my working life: not success that tells me it’s okay to stop, but success that lets me know that I am going in the right direction. Not a gold star, but a compass.